SkiLink proposal divides users over access and environment

By Tyler Tate

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 11:23 p.m. MST

SkiLink would connect Canyons ski resort to Solitude, shown above.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Last season Utah attracted 20 million ski and snowboard visitors and another $1.2 billion in revenue to area businesses. Now one group says by linking Park City and Big Cottonwood canyon those figures could rise.

Talisker Corp.'s the Canyons resort wants to link its Park City runs with Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon via a gondola. The development would add 500 permanent operational jobs and generate $50 million of revenue annual at its outset. Not everyone is happy.

"This project is designed to make Utah more attractive to out-of-state skiers and to bring our local ski community together," said Mike Goar, managing director of the Canyons, in an interview. "The Canyons and Park City are two well-established resorts with challenges for skiers and snowboarders. This project now opens the door for more access."

SkiLink, as it is called, would reduce ski season traffic through Big Cottonwood Canyon by as much as 18,000 cars, or 10 percent of ski- and snowboard-related traffic each year, according to Talisker, citing an independent study it conducted. That translates into 1 million fewer miles driven and around 1 million fewer pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

The eight-passenger SkiLink gondola will link an existing 6,000 acres of skiable terrain as it transporst skiers between the Canyons and Solitude in an 11-minute ride, Talisker reported. Entry and exit to the SkiLink Gondola will be mid mountain at the Canyons and the base of Solitude with no other stops along the route.

To access the gondola, visitors must purchase a special pass. No price has been set, said Goar. The total pass would not cost more than the combined value of each resort.

Goar said the design with not impact backcountry skiers. Others disagree.

The U.S. Forrest Service owns the land through which SkiLink would pass. In 2003, the Forrest Service said in a report that boundaries could not expand into undelveloped areas, as is the case with SkiLink.

To make the construction possible, Talisker along with Congressman Rob Bishop, who serves as chairman of the subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee jointly introduced House and Senate legislation, asking for the sale of 30.3 acres of land at fair market value.

Carl Fisher, director of the nonprofit Save our Canyons, said the Forest Service rulling is one of many reasons to reject the project along with potential impact to the watershed. The SkiLink path crosses land classified as "function at risk" by the Forest Service.

"SkiLink is a blatent disregard of the directive set by the U.S. Forrest Service," Fisher said. "SkiLink does not make sense as a transportation solution. It is ski resort expansion through at-risk areas."

The SkiLink group disagrees, citing studies on the habitats, wildlife, watershed and visual landscape showing no significant impact. Construction crews would use helicopters to pour concrete and place the towers. The gondola route would mirror the terrain to fit in with the landscape, Goar said.

Water quality records provided by SkiLink and Utah's Department of Agriculture, have also shown that ski lifts developed in adjacent areas with similar slope, soil and vegetation had no adverse impact to water quality.

In the bill introduced by Rob Bishop, the directed sale would provide additional legislation for environmental studies that are required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and all other applicable laws to gain approval for construction of the SkiLink project.

There are still many steps that need to be taken before the SkiLink project can be built. Following approval, the project will take about three to four years to complete, Goar said.

The representative of the project and opponent Save our Canyons have added their viewpoints, which are available online.

Read the pro position by Mike Goar, the managing director of the Canyons Resort.

Read the con position by Carl Fisher, the executive director of Save our Canyons.

Tyler Tate is the owner and writer of T Squared Action Sports. Follow him on Twitter @TSquaredSports or online at tsquaredsports.com.

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